Has any story written in English in the last 300 years been told as many times as A Christmas Carol? This December alone, there’s a three-episode miniseries on FX, news has just arrived that Will Ferrell (!) and Ryan Reynolds (!!) are working on a musical version (!!!) intended for the big screen, and stage productions are playing all over the country. In New York City there’s a one-night-only concert event built around Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (December 16), A Christmas Carol in Harlem (through December 21), a one-man show starring Patrick Stewart in all roles (closing Dec. 13), not to mention a musical version, a different musical version, and one done with Czech marionettes. I even had a go at retelling the story myself, in my intergalactically acclaimed novel A Christmas Caroline. Film, stage, and Czech-marionette rights are available.
The biggest Dickens going, though, is a new Broadway production, playing at the Lyceum Theatre through January 5, imported from London’s Old Vic. It’s a thoroughly charming sort-of musical infused with traditionalism that stars Campbell Scott as old Ebenezer. It is also clearly aimed at out-of-towners, not New Yorkers, which is to say it isn’t interested in turning the story inside-out and upside-down; Scrooge isn’t “daringly reimagined” as a Republican senator, nor is Tiny Tim an illegal immigrant. This is pretty much just a normal, crowd-pleasing Christmas Carol with a few welcome tweaks, so rest easy. Also there are treats handed out to the audience.
Directed by Matthew Warchus, A Christmas Carol strikes an unusually friendly and outgoing pose, with musicians in Victorian cloaks led by a violinist playing some folksy carols while the audience finds its seats. One actor wanders around the aisles giving out clementines, another tosses bags of cookies at patrons. Throughout the show the orchestra plays charming, down-home versions of a dozen seasonal tunes and hymns — “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Silent Night.” Scrooge’s grouchy banter with his clerk Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves) and his subsequent journey into darkness and then light is staged on a single set, in two one-hour acts. Boxes piled up into furniture or placed like puzzle pieces into gaps in the stages are the main props, with dozens of small lanterns overhead creating a suitably old-timey effect. A pile of disused lanterns in the rear provides a dark backdrop, the equivalent of the skull on the desk in a still-life painting. Andrea Martin (as the Ghost of Christmas Past) and LaChanze (as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge’s old mentor Fezziwig) play comically off Scott’s bellowing grumpiness as they lead him to reconsider his various missteps. (Side note: I didn’t realize that at the same time I was getting old, Campbell Scott, the star of Singles whom I haven’t seen act in a few years, was also getting old. He doesn’t look like he needs a lot of makeup to be Scrooge, and his hair has gone white.)
There are no big surprises here, just smoothly operating narrative machinery. Scott perhaps might have made Scrooge either funnier or scarier if he wanted to make a splash, but he gets the job done. Director Warchus puts considerable effort into developing the young, pre-grumpified Scrooge (Dan Piering) as a soulful, fragile lad who was crushed by a breakup with his fiancée, Belle (Sarah Hunt). Later in the show, he emphasizes the soul-replenishing power of charity and kindness.
A major deviation from how the story is usually told is the blowout ending: I’d be giving too much away if I detailed any of the ridiculous, funny antics the cast (and the prop man) get up to in the closing minutes, but in the spirit of the season I will say that it’s quite wonderful to behold, and the audience gets to participate in the distribution of the bounty. If A Christmas Carol is about the moral peril of being a miser, this production is at least as interested in the moral reward of being generous: With abundant good cheer, the final act revels in Scrooge’s newfound holiday spirit, then revels some more, then continues reveling until the production becomes a kind of glitter bomb of holiday festivity. After two-and-a-quarter hours, it sends you back out to West 44th Street in a sprightly mood. Joy to the world, indeed.